JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort
adjoining Chichén Itzá Ruins in
YUCATÁN, MÉXICO

January 31, 2010

OLIVE SPARROWS, MAYBE
On a forest trail at dawn I sat warming in a shifting ray of sunlight. Twenty feet up the trail a couple of little sparrows hopped, scratched and pecked, keeping a wary eye on me. You can see the peaceful pair at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131sp.jpg.

According to Howell's reckoning, in our area we have two very similar, possibly merging species looking like those in the picture. The more widely ranging species, occurring in most of Mexico and into southern Texas, is the Olive Sparrow, ARREMONOPS RUFIVIRGATUS. The other species is the Green-backed Sparrow, Arremonops chloronotus, endemic to southeastern Mexico, northern Guatemala, Belize and a bit of Honduras. The two species' distributions overlap in our area. However, Howell describes the Green-backed Sparrow's taxonomic status as not fully resolved, and I wouldn't be surprised if Green-backed Sparrows prove to be just a variation of the more common and variable Olive Sparrow.

You've probably noticed that North America is rich in sparrows; within its pages my old fieldguide refers to 33 species as sparrows. In the Yucatan only three sparrow species are permanent residents -- the Botteri's being the third -- though several northern sparrows migrate through here or overwinter. Sparrows are mostly products of the Temperate Zone.

Down here we do have a world of other kinds of small, thick-billed, seed-eating, sparrow-like bird types, however, such as grassquits, buntings and seedeaters.

*****

THE WHITE SCRUB-HAIRSTREAK
Though just a couple of weeks ago I was describing unusually chilly weather here, last Sunday afternoon the temperature reached 98.4°F (37° C), then a norte blue through cooling things off to about perfect, and since then things have bounced around. All this must have been very agreeable to the butterflies, for it's been a good week to see them, despite relatively few plants flowering now.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mariposa/ on my "Butterflies of the Yucatan" webpage you can see that I've already photographed the Sky-blue Hairstreak. This week along a weedy forest trail I came upon another small, pale, fast-flitting butterfly that clearly was a hairstreak, but not the Sky-blue one. It was paler and more wooly-bottomed, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131b1.jpg.

You know that these are hairstreaks because of the hairlike "tails" at their wings' bottom, rear, and the dark spots associated with them. To an attacking predator the "tails" may look like antennae on a head, and the dark spots may resemble the compound eyes, and this deception might cause the predator to go for the wrong end. As I photographed this hairstreak its "tails" wiggled up and down just like antenna probing from a curious head.

Bea in snowy Ontario, hungry for butterflies, was tickled to ID the critter as the White Scrub- Hairstreak, STRYMON ALBATA.

It's a little butterfly, with a wingspan of about 1-¼ inches ( 3.2 cm), distributed from Venezuela and Columbia north through Central America and Mexico, sometimes even straying into extreme southern Texas, where seeing one is considered quite a treat. The White Scrub-Hairstreak's habitat is listed as second growth and shrubby fields in seasonally dry tropical lowlands, which is exactly where it was here. Its caterpillars feed on flower buds and young fruits of plants in the Mallow or Hibiscus Family, which are very common here in weedy places.

It all makes sense, all hangs together, another harmonizing tone in Nature's butterfly-melody.

*****

WHITE PEACOCK
Bea also identified the considerably larger butterfly at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131b2.jpg.

That's the White Peacock, ANARTIA JATROPHAE LUTEIPICTA, a Brush-footed Butterfly in the Nymphalidae. Its wingspan averages about 2-½ inches (6 cm). Among its caterpillars' most important foods are Wild Petunias, which are flowering now and of which much more is said in the next section. The adults take nectar mostly from members of the Aster or Composite Family in open, often moist areas such as along shallow ditches, and weedy fields.

This is a highly successful species enjoying an enormous distribution -- from Argentina north through Central America, Mexico, and the West Indies to southern Texas and southern Florida. It migrates and establishes temporary colonies as far north as central Texas and coastal South Carolina, and even has been spotted wandering as far as North Carolina, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas.

*****

WILD PETUNIA #3 AND ITS CYSTOLITHS
In the November 15th Newsletter I introduced a "Mexican Wild Petunia" growing from sidewalk cracks before my bungalow here, which still can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/ruellia.htm.

There I told of the pleasure I get from comparing species belonging to the same genus. In that instance I compared the sidewalk plant, Ruellia nudiflora, with another wild petunia, Ruellia caroliniensis, I'd met not long before in Mississippi, still profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/ruellia.htm.

Nowadays one of the most eye-catching wildflowers blooming along trails in the woods here is yet another wild petunia -- RUELLIA INUDATA. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131ru.jpg.

If you savor "variations on a theme," which is what comparing species within a genus is all about, you might enjoy going from one link to another, seeing all the differences, yet also noting the basic structural sameness among them. For example, the flowers among the three species all have violet-to-blue colors, all have funnel-shaped corolla tubes with five rounded lobes that flare outwardly, all are slightly bisymmetrical instead of radially symmetrical, and all have two anthers barely peeping from the corolla tube (with two more anthers unseen inside).

Among the differences are that our Ruellia inudata is much larger (up to five feet here) and has a semi-woody, or "suffrutescent," base, but has smaller flowers than the others.

Another big difference is in the leaves. Not only are the leaves of Ruellia inudata much hairier than the other two species, but also its leaves' surfaces are "bumpier." A closer look at this bumpiness is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131rv.jpg.

Ruellia inudata's leaves are bumpy because they are packed with "cystoliths." You can think of a cystolith as like a tiny, sandgrain-like gristle suspended within leaf tissue -- like the softish grit in old-time varieties of pear. More technically, a cystolith is an inorganic concretion, usually of calcium carbonate (limestone), formed in a cellulose matrix in special cells. They're restricted to a few plant families, such as Ruellia's Acanthus Family, the Acanthaceae. In that family, some genera produce them and some don't. The presence or absence of cystoliths can be important to note when identifying plants. The other two Ruellias mentioned above also have them, but they're not as pronounced as in Ruellia inudata.

I've always assumed that cystoliths were supposed to make it harder for herbivores such as caterpillars to eat the leaves. I ate a Ruellia inudata leaf, however, and couldn't detect any grittiness at all.

Ruellia inudata occurs from Mexico deep into South America.

*****

COPAL NOT COPAL
A very conspicuous feature of Maya ceremonies is the plentiful use of copal incense. Copal is a natural plant resin usually mixed with some other medium such as wood shavings, and burnt, forming billowing white clouds of fragrant, white incense.

Maya rituals frequently are performed at Hacienda Chichen and lots of copal is used. I asked my friend Paulino if the copal-producing plant grows in this area and he replied that it does. One day when we were in the woods he led me to the plant and I was very surprised. For, the copal I knew was produced by trees, primarily the tree called Copal, Protium copal. In some places the dried exudate of the Gumbo-Limbo tree, Bursera simaruba, is used. Both of these trees belong to the Bursera Family, the Burseraceae. The Gumbo-Limbo is abundant here, but the tree called Copal grows farther south where it's rainier.

What Paulino showed me, however -- and he immediately set about plucking fragrant gobs of copal from the stem to prove his point -- was a thick-stemmed, woody vine like North America's larger grapevines. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131co.jpg.

In that picture, near my thumb, the powdery-white spot is where with my thumbnail I scraped away outer bark revealing tiny white globules of hardened, fragrant resin. That stem was absolutely saturated with resin. But, what plant was it?

Luckily, the vine now has flowered, though the flowers occur only at the top of the forest canopy. You can see my long-distance shot pushing PhotoShop to its limit at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131cp.jpg.

Again I'm amazed. The flowers are similar to those of Eupatorium -- composite flowers in the Composite or Daisy Family. But, who's ever heard of a woody, viny Composite that oozes super-fragrant, hardening resin?

The best I can tell, the mystery plant is OTOPAPPUS SCABER. That species isn't well documented on the Internet and I find no comment on its fragrant resin or its use by the Maya so maybe here I'm contributing information not hitherto published.

The copal used in Maya ceremonies at Hacienda Chichen is purchased in town. However, now I know that when the local backwoods Maya conduct their own ceremonies, for their copal they go deep into the forest seeking out this little-known Composite-Family woody vine.

*****

ORANGE JASMINE FRUITING
Next to the church there's a handsome little tree with a compact, dark-green crown and smallish, evergreen, pinnately compound leaves. It's fruiting now, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131lm.jpg.

The fruits remind me of smallish, inch-long jalapeño peppers, but when you break one open you only find a couple of seeds, while a pepper has many, plus the tree's bruised fruit has a sharp, citrus odor very unlike any pepper.

The evergreen, pinnately compound leaves along with the citrus odor of the fruits reminded me of eastern North America's Prickly-Ash, genus Zanthoxylum, in the Citrus Family, the Rutaceae. However, Prickly-Ashes are plenteously and painfully prickly, but I couldn't find a single prickle on this tree. Also, Prickly-Ashes produce very different fruits. Checking to see if the church-tree might still be a member of the Citrus Family I plucked a leaflet, held it up against the sun, and saw strong evidence that it WAS, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131lo.jpg.

We've seen before how leaves of members of the Citrus Family often contain "pellucid dots" -- glands filled with aromatic oils, and which glow brightly when held against the sun. So, my first thought was that here was a genus of the Citrus Family with which I'd not yet made acquaintance, and I could hardly wait to bring out my books and figure out who it was. Before heading to the books I was careful to note that the tree was much-branched from near its base and its bark was blotchy, almost like eucalyptus bark. You can see its trunk next to some Mother-in-law Tongues at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131ln.jpg.

The little church tree turned out to be a native of South and Southeast Asia, China and Australasia, but, according to the Web, much planted in the southern US. Somehow I must have missed it. It goes by several English names, including Orange Jasmine, Mock Orange and Chinese Box. It's MURRAYA PANICULATA, and it is indeed a member of the Citrus Family. The flowers are especially fragrant. As an ornamental it makes a fine tall, dense hedge, flowering and fruiting throughout the year as it attracts many bees and birds. However, it's vulnerable to several diseases, and is the main host of the insect vector of the Citrus Greening Disease.

Searching for information on Orange Jasmine on the Internet turns up with many pages dealing with bonsai -- dwarfed ornamental trees grown in trays.

You can see a bonsai Orange Jasmine at http://www.tropicalbonsai.com/murrayapaniculata2.htm.

*****

A RIPE CYCAD FRUIT
Upon my arrival at Hacienda Chichen last November the very first plant profiled in this Newsletter was the amazing Tree Cycad, Dioon spinulosa, standing so handsomely next to the Office's entrance, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/dioon.htm.

As stated then, Cycads are gymnosperms and thus most closely related to plants such as ginkgos and yews. However, their closest relatives went extinct millions of years ago, so now cycads as a group occupy an isolated branch of the evolutionary Tree of Life. They are genuine "living fossils."

The second picture at the above page shows a 21-inch- long (53 cm) cone, or fruit, suspended from the cycad's crown. This week that same cone reached maturity and broke apart in a very spectacular manner. You can what it looked like Monday morning at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131cy.jpg.

Most of the cone had disintegrated into pieces, which lay heaped beneath the cycad. Anyone who has ever dissected a pinecone, or seen them shattered on the road where they'd been run over by cars, can see that the cycad's cone is structured similarly; numerous seed-bearing scales are attached spirally around a central axis. Among pines, the scales are somewhat dry and woody, but these scales are different. You can see a single scale in the palm of my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131cz.jpg.

In that picture notice the two yellow, oval seeds held at about the level of my little finger's tip. Here we can really see the "gymnos" in "Gymnosperm." For, "gymnos" is classical Greek for "naked," so "Gymnosperms" are plants with "naked seeds." And those two seeds on their scale perches are about as naked as they can be. Remember that in Angiosperm fruits the seeds are covered. Cherry seeds are embedded in sweet flesh; a maple's fruit has its seed surrounded by a dry husk that enlarges on one side into a papery wing. In a sense, the gymnosperms' naked seeds recall a moment in evolutionary history when plants hadn't yet figured out the advantages to embedding their seeds in various coverings.

This cycad species is so rare and beautiful that it would be the star in any garden. Therefore, why not plant the seeds and sell the seedlings at a hefty price? I collected all the fallen scales with their seeds ready to do just that. However, I had a certain doubt: My books say that the main cycad genus Cycas is "dioecious" -- plants either male or female. I have no information about this genus, Dioon, but if it's also dioecious we may be in trouble because I know of no male tree hereabouts. Before harvesting all the seeds from their scales I cut across many seeds and every one of them showed the disheartening situation shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131cx.jpg.

The part of the seed supposed to hold the genetic information is empty. This looks like a spectacular case of "false pregnancy." Apparently fruits and seeds are produced whether fertilization takes place or not. This explains why all the older seeds were rotting. On the Internet I find a page entitled "Cycads From Seed" stating that inside the seed there should be "... a fine coiled filament and attached to the end of that a small object which is the embryo. If the hollow inside the seed is quite empty, the seed is no good." It also says that some cycads produce well formed seeds even when no pollination has taken place. That page is at http://www.pacsoa.org.au/cycads/Articles/germination.html.

In Querétaro we ran into a much smaller cycad with edible cones. Literature I have access to is mute on the edibility of Dioon spinulosa cones, so I ate most of the scale in my hand. The darker yellow part had the texture of raw winter squash, which it slightly tasted like, in the sense that it didn't have much taste at all, though there was a hint of sweetness. The paler yellow part was too hard to bite into. Still, that cone provided a lot of eating for anyone just needing calories. I can imagine that cooked it might be quite good.

*****

ROYAL PALMS FLOWERING
One morning this week even before sunlight illuminated the tops of my little hill's tallest trees, I heard so many bees buzzing that I was sure a swarm must have been passing, even though it was far too early for that. Tracking down the sound took me to the base of a tall Royal Palm, where it was clear that the powerful humming was from bees that weren't swarming, but rather just working among the tree's enormous flower clusters some 30 feet overhead, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131rp.jpg.

Royal Palms, ROYSTONEA REGIA, are "monoecious," which means that each tree bears separate male and female flowers. In the picture, the dark flower cluster on the right bears hundreds of developing fruits, which when mature will be only about half an inch wide (1.3 cm); the white cluster at the left bears thousands of male flowers, spent ones of which on that still morning flurried to the ground like a gentle snow. The ground was white with discarded male flowers about half an inch across. You can see one in my hand at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131rq.jpg.

Each male flower consists of three white tepals -- tepals being the term used when sepals and petals are indistinguishable -- six to twelve stamens with purple anthers (the pollen-producing bags), and in the center there's an ovary! The ovary deserves an exclamation mark because these are male flowers and of course an ovary is female. The ovaries in these male flowers can be thought of as vestigial ovaries. Sometimes they are referred to as "pistillodes," to differentiate them from fertile pistils that will develop into seed- bearing fruits.

All week it's snowed male flowers from our many stately Royal Palms, and every morning I've returned from my jog hearing a pleasing, busy hummmmmmmmmmmmm overhead.

*****

MAKING MAYA PAPER
This week Don Pascual of the nearby village of San Felipe showed me paper he makes using traditional Maya techniques and employing fibers extracted from Banana tree leaves and Mother-in-law's Tongues, Sansevieria thyrsiflora, a plant we recently profiled at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/mo-in-lw.htm.

You can see Don Pascual holding a sheet of his paper at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131pp.jpg.

When the Spanish arrived here during the early 1500s they found the Maya in possession of large numbers of texts written on paper, the main source of the fibers in the paper apparently from the Amate, or Strangler Fig Tree. The Spanish destroyed the vast majority of the texts, but the knowledge of how to make paper from locally grown fibers, or at least the urge to do so, seems to have survived. The two plants producing fibers used by Don Pascual are both introduced species -- Banana from Asia and Mother-in-law's Tongue from southern Africa -- so his preparation may differ from the ancient technique.

The paper Don Pascual produces is stiff enough to keep its shape when held by hand, semitranslucent, the texture of grade-school construction paper on one side and smooth and a bit glossy on the other. Some people buy it for making their own envelopes for very special occasions and others draw and paint on it. For Don Pascual the problem is that not enough people buy it to encourage him financially to keep making it.

Therefore, I wonder if anyone out there would be interested in buying this paper to use or resell? If so, drop me a note telling how much you might like to have and in what dimensions, and I'll contact Don Pascual to see what arrangements might be made. With a little luck and some work maybe we encourage this cottage industry in San Felipe.

*****

OVERNIGHT STAYS IN SAN FELIPE
One reason we visited San Felipe, where Don Pascual makes his paper, was to check on the possibility of offering guests at Hacienda Chichen the opportunity to spend time in a genuine Maya house, hosted by a genuine Maya family, in a genuine Maya village. No decisions on the matter have been made yet.

A glimpse into San Felipe's daily life, a moment as old as Maya culture itself, of womenfolk preparing tortillas in Don Pascual's home, can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131sf.jpg.

A corner of San Felipe, viewed from across the mostly empty town square, can be studied at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/10/100131sg.jpg.

*****

SPARROW TAO
Many times I'd hiked down the trail where the Olive Sparrows hopped, scratched and pecked so contentedly that morning as the sun came up, warming us all in such a pleasant manner. However, until that morning, I'd never seen the sparrows.

In fact, in that spot I'd never seen the White-eyed Vireo who that morning came working through the brush right beside me so close I could clearly see his strange, white eyes. At that spot I'd never heard the Laughing Falcon cackling as he passed thirty feet overhead, peering down so very calmly at me, then sailing on.

I'd never seen all those things at that spot because during earlier visits I'd always needed to get somewhere and be back by a certain time.

Already you can see where this discussion can lead to: That slowing down and paying attention enriches one's life. However, that point has been made here many times, in many contexts, so is there a deeper meaning in my experience with the sparrows on a woodland trail? That's been this week's "thought experiment" -- to uncover and analyze various levels of meanings, to see if there might be a "final message" Nature sends in such moments, a message beyond which no further messages are possible, or necessary.

What I've decided is that probably there is, and maybe I know it. The final message, once something is viewed from every angle, is that the most insightful thing to be said is... nothing.

Everything speaks for itself much more profoundly and eloquently than any words can portray. Two sparrows on a woodland trail hopping, scratching and pecking, and me being there seeing them and feeling what I felt, is just what it was, and that was perfect and final enough.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim